The work teachers do - Coeur d'Alene Press: Bill Rutherford

The work teachers do

Food for Thought

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Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 12:00 am

Recent condemnation of teachers and the public school system saddens me. I read Letters to the Editor, listen to politicians and watch the nightly news to learn that public education is failing our children. Talk radio and television commentators warn of the bottomless money pit taxpayers are asked to fill with their hard-earned cash to support greedy teachers who demand more income while stealing money from students with no improvement in educational outcomes. I question where these statements come from? This is not the public education system I know.

I have worked in public education for the past 18 years counseling at an alternative high school, working as the counselor at two elementary schools, leading an elementary as their principal and teaching psychology at a state college. I see dedicated, smart teachers working daily to improve the lives of students, providing a quality education while fully accepting and embracing all students who walk through the door. Our public school is not failing, it is flourishing.

A Letter to the Editor in this paper claims, "The teacher's and its union is the creator for all dysfunction in public education, now they have effectively destroyed public education. They have turned it into a bottomless money pit turning out dysfunctional morons." Obviously, this writer does not know the children or teachers I know. I've never met a dysfunctional moron in the four schools I have worked in in the past 18 years. The children I know are bright, engaging, kind and encouraged to learn by teachers they admire.

Another reader writes, "Perhaps we can start thinking how education can actually PREPARE them (the children) for a productive career. Not just a bunch of social stuff." Really? Preparing one for a productive career and the social stuff is mutually necessary. Great teachers effectively do both daily. One might be a brilliant mechanical engineer but if not skilled to form positive relationships, will fail gaining employment, dealing with clients, coworkers and managers. What happens on the playground and through social teaching ensures social competence which builds life-skills.

If the argument is, "Public schools do not prepare children for a productive career," I disagree. Qualified professionals are teaching with great skill, hardworking children are learning and kids of all abilities are reaching their full potential.

If the argument is, "Only parents should teach the social stuff." I offer, where better to practice what parents teach than in the safety of the school society? Parents and schools are cooperative partners in raising the children of our society.

I propose public education teachers teach our children at a high level, students learn and the system is not broken. Why do students in the United States score more poorly on standardized tests than students in all developed countries in the world? Well, they don't. I'm not sure where the ideas of failing schools come from but the facts don't support the argument. The truth is:

• The average U.S. fourth-grader math scores are higher than 23 of the 35 countries examined and lower than eight countries (all in Asia and Europe) (TIMMS, 2008).

• In 2007, the U.S. fourth-grader science scores are higher than those in 25 countries and lower than those in four countries (all in Asia).

• Asian students consistently outperform American students and the longer students are in school, the wider the gap becomes - virtually no gap exists in first grade with the highest gap in 11th grade (Harold Stevenson, 1995, 2000).

• Asian students are in school an average of 240 days a year and U.S. students an average of 178 days a year. Students in Asian countries spend the equivalent of 4.19 years longer in school than children in the United States by 12th grade. (Email me and I will provide the full, research-based, peer reviewed journal articles for the research above.)

Imagine how student performance might increase if each American child spent 62 days more a year with an excellent American educator? The math is simple; children are performing at high levels because highly skilled teachers are teaching to the best of their ability and aiding kids to reach their full potential. The problem; great American teachers do not have the opportunity to spend as much time with their students as their Asian counterparts. If American educators are afforded the opportunity to spend 240 days a year with their students, American students can outperform all students in the world - do the math.

The work teachers do every day is more than the skilled task of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Teachers also perform the work of social worker, nurse, parent, therapist, administrator, friend, problem-solver, office manager and business partner. Most teachers arrive at school early, stay late and take work home to grade. Weekends are filled with lesson planning, website updates, parent letters and shopping for school supplies. Summers are filled with continuing education classes, district work and rejuvenating and reenergizing for the coming school year.

Asking a teacher about her importance in the education of a child often leads to humble redirection, "It's not what I teach the students, it is what they teach me."

One teacher offers, "I didn't know how important losing teeth is, how to properly blow a 5-year-old's nose and how often kindergarteners have an accident and need a change of clothes. I was not used to hugs, accidently being called mom and teaching how to tie little shoes. I quickly learn how 5-year-olds love the adults in their life unconditionally. The children in this room teach me to accept unconditional love and the responsibility that comes with total, unwavering acceptance. These students teach me to be dependable, predictable, caring and nurturing. They teach me if I say I promise; I better produce. They teach me if I say I'm sorry, they will forgive me. They teach me to be a better person."

Another teacher reflects about the degree of human emotion in the education setting, "On the same day last week one of my students cried because she couldn't find her eraser, one of my students cried because her friend told her she was only her second best friend and one of my students cried because her mom died. For each child, the degree of sadness is real and requires the same degree of attention. Ensuring all kids know their emotions are honored and important requires a lot of work. I guess it's just a day in the life of an American teacher."

A first-grade teacher offers this synopsis from her, "What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up," assignment. "My students are developmentally different. One wants to be a coworker when he grows up, one wants to be a shoplifter when she grows up and one wants to be an Egyptologist when she grows up. It's funny how life looks inside of a first-grade brain." Teachers do more than teach, they help raise children cooperatively with the child's parents and the community - it takes a village.

The Coeur d'Alene Press is running an insightful editorial about the plight of the American education system. I offer an inside look at what I know of the American education system. It is time to celebrate the work our teachers do daily to prepare little minds to become smart, productive, caring members of our society. One might ask, "Why celebrate the failure of the American education system and the people who operate within it?" I say, the American education system is not failing and the people within the system are hard-working, dedicated, loving, smart, companionate people who focus every day to educate and care for the children they teach.

Forty-plus years later, I still value those who taught me as a child. Mrs. Bretz, my third-grade teacher still remembers me and asks to see me when I am in town. Mrs. Baker, my kindergarten teacher played piano at my wedding and Mr. Desjardins, my high school English teacher follows and praises my accomplishments on Facebook. The teachers of my youth are in my soul - they mold me into what I am today.

Before critiquing, criticizing and degrading teachers and the American public school system based on media hypercriticism and sensationalism, I suggest examining the facts. Volunteer at a school, view for yourself the great work happing in schools, examine test scores and truly understand the work students are doing in school - the results might amaze you.

If you wish to comment or offer suggestions, please email Bill Rutherford at

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